July 24, 2014
Shakespeare & Company stages outdoor Macbeth production in Paris
by Claire Kelley
There’s something magical about Shakespeare & Company in Paris—perhaps it has to do with the bookshop’s esteemed lineage. Originally Sylvia Beach’s shop at a different location on rue de l’Odeon, the current shop on rue de la Bûcherie across the street from Notre Dame was steered by the magnanimous George Whitman for more than 50 years. His spirit remains, watching over his daughter Sylvia (and now grandson Gabriel) who has brought an incredible lineup of author events and festivals to the shop.
Sylvia Whitman took over the bookstore when she was already an accomplished actress, and so it makes sense that she is hosting a professional production of Macbeth to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare‘s birth. The play will be directed by Cressida Brown, who was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about why this Bard-en-Seine Festival, which began yesterday, will be so special. For all of us who aren’t in Paris this week, we can get a little preview of the magic to come.
Will all of the participants in the production be professional actors? I know in the past that Tumbleweeds (volunteers who sleep in the bookshop) have put on Shakespeare plays.
All of the actors are professional except two extras who are tumbleweeds. The irony is that it is always the people not speaking in Shakespeare that are the most important—they are the reason the other person is speaking—so they have been in an awful lot of scenes and many many rehearsals even though they are extras.
How did you come to be involved with Shakespeare & Company?
I have known Sylvia since 1998 and in fact was a tumbleweed myself around then. So it feels wonderful to come back 15 years later and be directing a show for this wonderful shop. I am very honored to be doing the first professional Shakespeare production for the shop’s namesake.
How will these Macbeth productions be “bold and subversive,” as promised in the press release?
This play will question who is truly the tyrant. I think that the audience need to understand— even encourage—every choice Macbeth makes for the play to work. The will definitely be more sympathetic. He is one of the most fearful and paranoid of Shakespeare’s heroes and in my production he has every reason to be.
In terms of who the tyrant is, it’s actually incredibly topical at the moment. The Elizabethans would have viewed the Scottish as barbaric cannibals and would have probably been turning up to the show expecting a depiction of these bloodthirsty Celts. What they get instead is a man with a conscience. This is how Shakespeare is being a self consciously clever playwright. Malcolm gives a very brief ‘press release’ in his final speech about ‘this dead butcher and his fiend like wife’ which the audience—having seen Macbeth’s decline and been privy to his innermost thoughts would know doesn’t tell half the story.
At the time James had just been made king of England AND of Scotland. I think what you are watching as the play progresses is a very Machiavellian take over of Scotland by the English. Malcolm invades Scotland with ten thousand men chopping down the Scottish nature to claim power for himself. By the end of the play Macbeth is the only person left wearing a St Andrews flag on his arm. Every single other one of the Scottish lords is now wearing a St George’s cross.
How will the production acknowledge the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and the centenary of the First World War?
For a play about child soldiers being dragged off the streets at the whim of those in power, I think that having World War 1 costumes as our setting will serve as a poignant reminder of the young men that were lost.
What experience from your background in theater will you particularly bring to this performance in your role as director?
I am normally a site specific theatre director. That means that I have done shows before in derelict swimming pools, tower blocks, boats, wharfs. Use of space is a vital part of my storytelling, and I seek to explode text through space. Also how the audience is involved is important to my immersive work—how are the audience made to feel present and part of the liveness?
People are often surprised then that I have been working for the RSC since 2009 and that I am a Shakespearean addict. But the truth is you can’t get anyone more obsessed with space (the ‘play within the play’) and audience interaction than the bard himself.
The audience will always feel present in the production and Macbeth’s soliloquies will not be his inner thoughts but a plea for help directly to them.
How will Stanley Wells and Alan Riding participate in the festival?
[Laura Keeling, the producer of the festival answers this question.] On four out of five days of our mini Shakespearean extravaganza, we’ll be hosting free bard-themed events on the esplanade outside the bookshop prior to the performance of Macbeth. Alan Riding will speak on the theme of Shakespeare as a person and a playwright, a nice bit of context; we’ll have an evening of sonnet-reading (we’re hoping some audience members will join in and read their favourites); and the great scholar Stanley Wells will speak on Saturday about sex and love in Shakespeare’s plays. Juicy, but highbrow!
Will there be any surprises for the audience?
Yes, lots of surprises! What is theatre without surprises??? Unfortunately I can’t tell you what though or it wouldn’t be a surprise.
What are you most excited about as the festival draws nearer?
Watching my fantastic cast show off their remarkable talent. Florian Hutter—my Macbeth—is an extraordinary Shakespearean actor, and I can’t wait for him to unleash his energetic performance onto an audience. A star is born!
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.